The Children’s Center at Park Hill United Methodist Church has long served as a pillar of its community by providing childcare to thousands of neighborhood kids since 1980. But in August 2010, the center was hit with allegations of child sex abuse that could go down as one of the worst cases in state history. What many people don’t know: It wasn’t the first time.
Nearly 50 adults try to get comfortable in folding chairs in the basement of Messiah Community Church, just 10 blocks from the Children’s Center. Feather Berkower, a diminutive but outspoken woman, has set up her PowerPoint presentation. Berkower, 49, is the founder of Parenting Safe Children, a local organization dedicated to child sex abuse prevention. Less than six weeks after the allegations at the Children’s Center, the Park Hill Parent’s Day Out organization has asked Berkower to give an informational workshop.
There is palpable tension in the room as Berkower begins. She starts with basic, yet chilling statistics. More than 20 percent of children are sexually abused before the age of eight. Up to 50 percent of sexual offenders are juveniles. Ninety-six percent of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by males. The average pedophile abuses approximately 250 children. The four most common places for child molestation to occur are at school, during sports programs, at religious institutions, and inside homes—the child’s or someone else’s.
“Any child can be abused,” Berkower says, explaining that sex abuse crosses age, economic, racial, and cultural barriers, “but children with parents who are uninformed about sex abuse are more vulnerable. Children whose parents don’t spend time with them are more vulnerable. Children whose parents don’t ask questions of or listen to them are more vulnerable. Children without a no-secrets rule are more vulnerable.” The crowd of mostly thirtysomethings shifts uneasily in its seats.
Segments of Berkower’s workshop are meant to be interactive with the audience, but it’s a struggle to find volunteers. Berkower explains that parents should teach children that there are proper names for their private parts. “Can anyone give me a slang term for the vagina?” Berkower asks. The room is quiet. “C’mon guys,” she pleads. “No one has ever heard the word ‘cherry?’ ” Silence. Berkower sighs. “Folks, this is a big reason why pedophiles can do what they do. They prey on our denial and our embarrassment and our inability to talk about sex—with each other and with our children.” Someone from the back of the room offers va-jay-jay. Berkower smiles. “Good,” she says. “What else?” A few words ring out. When the room goes silent again, Berkower explains why it’s important for children to use the correct anatomical terms for their private parts. She relays a story of a young girl who was trying to tell her teacher that her father was molesting her. The girl told her: “My daddy ate my cookie.” The teacher didn’t understand what the girl was trying to say.
The primary focus of Berkower’s workshop is for parents to make their children off-limits to pedophiles. She teaches that it’s the parents’ responsibility to ensure their child’s safety—not to expect that from the soccer league, the daycare center, the school, or the state. To do that, Berkower suggests teaching children body safety rules. Numbering 10 in all, her body safety rules seem like straightforward parenting (see below), yet when Berkower asks how many people had talked with their kids about these things, very few hands meet the air. Even fewer hands go up when Berkower asks how many parents had asked their kids’ babysitters or coaches or teachers about sexual abuse. “By asking questions about sexual abuse prevention training or background checks or sexual misconduct policies to these people,” Berkower explains, “you advise them that you are monitoring them.” Pedophiles, Berkower says, don’t want to get caught. They select their prey based on the chances of success, and they can often succeed if they find a child who has not been taught how to protect himself.
“Body Safety Rules”
from Parenting Safe Children
- No one is allowed to touch your private body parts, except to help you clean them or if the doctor or nurse needs to examine them. (This includes siblings.)
- 2You are not allowed to touch someone else’s private body parts.
- It is OK to touch your own private body parts as long as you do it in private.
- No one (adult or teenager) is allowed to take pictures of your private body parts or show you pictures of naked people.
- When playing with friends, play with your clothes on.
- You and all of your family members are allowed to have privacy when bathing, dressing, and using the toilet. (Model privacy for your children.)
- No one is allowed to make you kiss or touch him or her if you don’t want to. No one is allowed to kiss or touch you if you don’t want him or her to, including relatives. You are allowed to choose whom you kiss and touch, and when you kiss and touch people.
- You have permission to say ‘no’ and get away if anyone tries to touch your private body parts or tries to break any of your body safety rules. You never have to do what an adult or anyone tells you to do if the person is breaking a body safety rule or making you unsafe.
- If someone tries to or does touch your private body parts, try to get away, and then go tell a trusted adult.
- If someone tells you to keep a secret about touching private body parts, tell an adult.
Feather Berkower co-authored Off Limits: A Parent’s Guide to Keeping Kids Safe from Sexual Abuse, available at parentingsafechildren.com.